The twin challenges of being a minority in his home state and the immense disadvantage of the Muslims for not being skilled in modern Western learning, was a wake-up call for Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1818-98) to accept modern learning or face extinction. The task that he countenanced was stupendous as it was difficult for the Muslim elite to accept subordination under British rule, thus signalling a total departure from the earlier phase of grandeur of Muslim rule of seven hundred years. He effected the transition early in his life and saved many among the British in 1857. He was also aware of the relative backwardness of his community and tried to rectify the situation.
To rejuvenate the Muslim community, Sir Syed prepared a set of ground rules to be followed to attain the objective. The most important and unequivocal shift was in the acceptance of the British Raj as the legitimate government of the land. He was aware that he would meet stiff resistance as it meant a total departure from the earlier hope of restoration of Muslim rule. However, the huge setback at the debacle of 1857-58 created some space for him and like Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) in the context of his social reform amongst the Hindus, he reinterpreted the ancient texts. Sir Syed reinterpreted the Quran and asserted that jihad was prescribed only when peace was disrupted by non-Muslim rulers and if property and freedom of worship were threatened. Since the British were accused of neither, Muslim resistance to such a reasonable administration was unwarranted. To reinforce his argument, he emphasised the fact that the British were treating Muslims impartially, and this meant that the Muslims were to be loyal to such rule and defend the same. He faced considerable criticism and yet he was able to elicit some support for his fresh interpretation. The most important outcome of this move ~ a rapprochement between the Muslims and the colonial masters ~ was envisaged and accepted by a large section of the Muslim elite.
Equally Sir Syed was conscious of the fact that for this new cooperation to be successful, the British suspicion and hatred reinforced by the Revolt of 1857 had to be overcome. Discounting the factor of religious fanaticism, he tried to convince the British administration that the rebellion was the consequence of certain wrong policies of the administration which fomented dissatisfaction in the army. He also blamed legislation which was “jarred with the established customs and practices of Hindustan”. He also tried to prove that the Hindus were as much involved in the rebellion as the Muslims. He also provided examples of Muslim efforts and success in saving a number of British lives and property. He rejected the perception created by the press that the entire Muslim community was involved in the rebellion.
Sir Syed attempted to remove all the social barriers that existed between the British and the Muslims. By his own efforts he was able to bridge the gulf created by racial and religious differences between the two. These attempts were made as essential pre-requisites for his ultimate goal of advancing modern education for his community “as education and education alone, can be the means of national regeneration”. He derived inspiration for this during his visit to Britain in 1869-70 when he realised that education can provide the foundation for modernity by instilling “politeness, knowledge, good faith, cleanliness, skilled workmanship, accomplishment and thoroughness”. He also took note of the progress that Bengali Hindus and Parsees made only because they took advantage of modern Western education and lamented that the Muslims did not follow this course. This realisation instilled in him a sense of mission to change the Muslim indifference towards modern education. He questioned the opposition to modern education and contended that to the contrary, Islam always encouraged the pursuit of modern knowledge. What he wanted was a combination of ‘worldly progress’ while retaining the positive aspects of Islam to “remain good pious Muslims”.
With such a vision and total dedication working 18 hours a day, his main objective was to establish an independent Muslim college in India, akin to Oxford and Cambridge universities. It would imbibe both the spirit of Islam’s greatness and the content of modern education of the West. Despite opposition from the orthodox section of Muslims, Sir Syed and his associates were undaunted and with the support of the British, he established the Muhammadan Anglo Oriental College at Aligarh in 1875. He meticulously planned the institution and the principal and the senior faculty members were Englishmen noted for their academic excellence and who had supported his mission. He succeeded in creating a new Muslim elite group, which never forgot that they were the former rulers of India but equally aware of the present decline.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) supported the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University after Sir Syed’s death, as a legitimate Muslim demand as it would enable the community to play a more crucial role in the political arena. In the immediate perspective, one notable effect of Sir Syed’s efforts was a slow but sure change in the British policy towards Muslims. By the 1880s, the memory of 1857 largely faded and there was an acceptance by the British administration that the Muslims were a backward minority community and deserved both protection and support.
In articulating this separateness and backwardness, the Aligarh school stood at the opposite pole of the Indian National Congress. It rejected the Congress philosophy of one Indian nation as it perceived such a doctrine as dangerous, as Hindus and Muslims were separate groups. Sir Syed argued that if representative institutions were allowed in India, the majority community would not protect the interests of the smaller communities. Pointing to the disproportionate share of the Bengali bhadralok Hindus in the higher echelons of the civil service, he remarked that “no single Mohamedan will secure a place in the Viceroy’s council. The whole council consists of Babu so and so, Mitter Babu so and so, Ghose Babu so and so, and Chakrabarty so and so”. The rejection of the Congress programme was total.
Sir Syed died in 1898 and his abiding contribution was the ability to link Muslim well-being to the loyalty to the Raj, indeed an equation of total hostility to total loyalty. However, subsequent developments led to a reappraisal of this policy of unconditional loyalty to the Raj and with the example of the Congress to secure concessions which eventually led to a shift within the Aligarh movement.
Sir Syed’s major objective was to motivate the Muslims to embrace modern Western education and be at par with the Hindus who were already reaping its benefits. He mentioned the limited role of vernacular education and emphasised that English education was urgently needed by the country and by the people in their day-to-day life. Modern science and political economy were his priority areas and even JS Mill’s political economy was considered to be essential reading. Before the establishment of the Congress in 1885 he pleaded for close and cordial relations between the Hindus and the Muslims ~ two eyes of the same body. He cautioned that “we shall only destroy ourselves by mutual disunity and animosity and ill-will to each other”. But the establishment of the Congress changed this plea for cooperation to open hostility. In his reckoning, India was not yet ready for self-rule and even if the British left India, the country was destined to be ruled by other European powers like Russia, France or Germany, all of which would be worse than the British. His prescription was that the British should continue to rule India indefinitely for its progress. In this there is a marked similarity between Rammohan and Sir Syed as the former predicted the possibility of India gaining freedom after 150 years, while Sir Syed had no such thought. He never proposed a two-nation theory. His mission was to bring about parity for his community and co-existence based on equal opportunities. As the modern Gini co-efficient principle has demonstrated, Sir Syed realised that inequality in education is the basis of all other inequities. The similarity between Sir Syed and Rammohan is too clear to be missed.